@A Cargo Cults
In the final scenes of the film Mondo Cane, Gualtiero Jacopetti’s original “shockumentary,” we see eager Papua New Guinea islanders clustered around a huge, roughly-made model of an airplane. They are high up in the mountains, sitting on a new airstrip they carved out of the forest. Their eyes search the skies, so the film tells us, for airplanes full of wonderful “cargo” that they expect will soon arrive. But they are destined to be disappointed. No planes will land. These islanders are the misguided followers of a cargo cult.
Anthropologists, journalists, and others have used the term cargo cult since 1945 to describe various South Pacific social movements. Cargo cults blossomed in the postwar 1940s and 1950s throughout the Melanesian archipelagoes of the southwest Pacific. People turned to religious ritual (which was sometimes traditional, and sometimes innovative) in order to obtain “cargo.” The term cargo (or kago in Melanesian Pidgin English) is rich in meaning. Sometimes cargo meant money or various sorts of manufactured goods (vehicles, packaged foods, refrigerators, guns, tools, and the like). And sometimes, metaphorically, cargo represented the search for a new moral order which often involved an assertion of local sovereignty and the withdrawal of colonial rulers. In either case, people expected and worked for a sudden, miraculous transformation in their lives. Cargo cult prophets commonly drew on Christian millenarianism, sometimes conflating the arrival of cargo with Christ’s second coming and Judgment Day (locally often called “Last Day”). Among the most notable cargo cults are the John Frum and Nagriamel movements of Vanuatu, the Christian Fellowship Church of the Solomon Islands, and the Paliau and Yali movements, Hahalis Welfare Society, Pomio Kivung, and Peli Association of Papua New Guinea.
@H1 The Cargo Cult Label
The term “cargo cult” first appeared in a 1945 issue of the colonial news magazine Pacific Islands Monthly. That year, a disgruntled Australian resident of Papua New Guinea wrote to warn against outbreaks of cargo cult should the government dare to liberalize its native affairs policies. Anthropologists and others quickly adopted the term to label almost any sort of organized village-based social movement with religious and political aspirations. Before the war, observers had occasionally used the term “Vailala Madness,” borrowed from anthropologist F. E. William’s early analysis of a 1920s movement that had excited people around Vailala, Papua New Guinea (Williams 1923).
Although an improvement over Vailala Madness, “cargo cult” also is problematic in several ways. People involved in such movements always aspired to many things beyond simple material goods. And the organizations of these movements were ill-described by the word “cult.” Moreover, people within the Pacific and beyond also quickly adopted the term as a form of political abuse: politicians today may belittle the plans and aspirations of their rivals by labeling these as “cargo cultist.”
Despite the popularization of cargo cult as a label for South Pacific movements, from the beginning anthropologists sought out alternative terms. These included nativistic movements, revitalization movements, messianic movements, millenarian movements, crisis cults, Holy Spirit movements, protonationalist movements, culture-contact movements, and the like. These broader labels appreciated cargo cult’s affinities with social movements elsewhere that also appeared to be sparked by the global spread of the colonialist and capitalist systems. Cargo Cults, thus, were in significant ways similar to the North American Ghost Dance, or China’s Boxer Rebellion, or the Mau Mau of East Africa. “Cargo Cult,” nonetheless, remains as the now standard label for the South Pacific version of global millenarian movements.
@H1 Cargo Belief
The defining aspect of cargo cult beliefs, or ideology, was of course cargo itself. Cultists, supposedly, strove for the arrival of planes and ships full of cargo: manufactured goods and tinned foods, vehicles, weapons, and money. However, lists of desired cargo, as reported, reflected both Pacific aspirations and European presumptions of what islanders should want. Refrigerators, for example, occupied a suspiciously prominent place in many such reported cargo lists.
Details of cargo ideology varied from movement to movement. Common themes, however, included the belief that the ancestors were somehow involved in the production of manufactured goods. In some places, people believed that a technologically-wise ancestor long ago had sailed away to America, or Europe, or Australia to teach the secrets of cargo to people there. In others, cargo myth presumed that Europeans had stolen industrial knowledge from Pacific ancestors, or were stealing cargo itself that ancestors were shipping back to the islands. In either case, people invented new rituals to induce the dead to provide cargo and, sometimes, to come back to life and return home with cargo-filled ships and planes.
After the Pacific War, the American military occasionally came to take on the role of cargo provider. Many Melanesians, particularly those recruited to work at Allied bases on Efate and Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and Manus, Hollandia, and elsewhere in New Guinea, received better pay and obtained a variety of new wartime goods and services. After the militaries withdrew from most of the southwest Pacific in 1946, money and goods became scarcer. John Frum supporters on Tanna (Vanuatu), began predicting the return of the American military and the cargo that they had enjoyed as labor corps recruits. John Frum leaders also incorporated their experience of military routines and symbols into cult ritual and liturgy, including drill team marching, bamboo rifles, red crosses (from army ambulances), khaki uniforms, and US flags.
Many movements, in addition to material goods, also pursued various sorts of world-transformation. This, too, partly reflected political conditions at the end of the Pacific War. The Japanese advance had dislodged the Dutch and the Australians from much of New Guinea along with the British from the Solomon Islands. Large American occupation forces similarly weakened colonial authority in the New Hebrides and, to a degree, in New Caledonia and Fiji. At war’s end, in all these countries, the colonial powers moved to reestablish their authority in island hinterlands. Not surprising, people who had largely governed themselves during the war resisted this reassertion of European control. Cargo cult prophets predicted that ancestors, or returning Americans, would drive the colonial powers from the region. Cults were, as Jean Guiart argued, “forerunners of Melanesian nationalism” (1951).
In addition to articulating people’s desires for freedom, dignity, and independence from European domination, some cult prophets predicted more millenarian sorts of change. Mountains would flatten and valleys would rise up. Land would become sea, and the seas become land. People expected the coming of a new world, with remade people, and many cult rituals included elements of rebirth, or baptism, to mark the creation of a new order. Two very common prophesies were that the dead would come back to life, and that the skins of the faithful would turn white. The first of these prophecies reflected the importance of ancestors in traditional religion and their connections with fertility and production. The second responded to the stark racial inequalities of colonialist regimes where Europeans controlled access to money, goods, and education.
@H1 Cargo Organization
Orality rather than literacy continues to characterize much of Melanesia. People communicate by talking. All sorts of rumor and speculation flow from village to village<M>some of this about mysterious sightings, dreams of the future, or statements of prophesy. Only some of these stories attract much public attention, however. Anthropologists have attempted to figure why cargo movements occurred in one village while bypassing another. Two important factors were the degree of people’s sense of “relative deprivation”<M>how unhappy they are with their lives<M>and the absence of a strong, local power structure. Where village leaders were in firm control of a village or clan (whether these leaders were chiefs or what, in Melanesian Pidgin, are called “big-men”), they usually could deflect cargo cult enthusiasm and stifle the local spread of a movement.
Cargo “prophets” foretold the return of ancestors and typically explained what people must do in order to obtain cargo, instigating, for example, novel sorts of dance and other ritual. Some cargo movements revived traditional ceremonies that European missionaries and officials had devalued. Others focused on a ritual miming of European practices and styles, including dinner tables, dress, and literacy. Cargo prophets instructed people to drill and march. They and the faithful cleared new airfields and built makeshift cargo warehouses. Prophets advised followers that the ancestors required new offerings of food, or flowers, or money to be left in graveyards before cargo will arrive. They demanded that people dig up their crops, kill their animals, and discard all European money in order to open the gate to the cargo road. Sometimes they commanded the abolition of marriage and incest prohibition, and people engaged in unrestrained sexuality. Elsewhere, they forbade sex entirely as ritually necessary to ensure cargo’s arrival.
Prophetic messages of all sorts, in fact, are not unusual in Melanesia. Most people, even though today largely Christian, continue to sense the presence of ancestral ghosts. It is common for men and women to receive knowledge and information from ancestors<M>and also from God and the Holy Spirit<M>in their dreams. Those whose messages were accepted became leaders of the movements that formed around them. It was also common that other men, who organized and distributed prophetic messages, might assume control of a movement. Women have also been cargo prophets although men typically appropriated and broadcast the messages that women received in dreams or otherwise.
In much of Melanesia, knowledge remains a politically-valued resource. Men achieve a personal reputation and also political status by having good knowledge of family genealogy, history, personal and place names, ritual procedures, curing, and divination. Knowledge of cargo has similar political weight. Prophets<M>or those who controlled their messages<M>organized large, regional movements of thousands of people who desired to learn the secrets of cargo. Cargo prophesies have united people<M>at least temporarily<M>into large organizations that conjoin villages and kin groups from across a region. These movements were much larger than traditional Melanesian social groups. Cult ideology, typically, focused on social cooperation and standardization. Prophets and leaders worked to get everyone involved in cult ritual, e.g., mass dances and marches to invite ancestral arrival, or ritual procedures to wash and bless money to promote its reproduction. They also often preached against socially divisive practices of sorcery and other threats to group unity. The lack of movement solidarity served sometimes to excuse the failure of prophecy. Cargo does not arrive because followers have not fully observed the ancestors’ commands.
The history of most cargo cults was short. Followers would often abandon a prophet and his movement when cargo failed to arrive, or the world did not transform. Some leaders, however, have successfully institutionalized their movements. John Frum on Tanna, for example, which began in the late 1930s, sixty years later is managed by third-generation leaders, and has elected members to Vanuatu’s national parliament. Other cargo cults have similarly been institutionalized as political parties, or new religions, or both. The Peli Association and Pomio Kivung in Papua New Guinea are successful political organizations at the local level. The Christian Fellowship Church continues today on New Georgia, Solomon Islands, as a syncretic church.
@H1 Cargo Cults and Melanesian Culture
Cargo belief and cult organization reflect enduring, fundamental patterns in Melanesian cultures. Everywhere, the exchange of goods and wealth objects is an important aspect of creating and maintaining social relationships. People give one another garden produce, pigs, mats and baskets, traditional shell and contemporary money, and other valuables to celebrate births and marriages, and to mourn deaths. Moreover, men and women earn social reputation and political influence through generous giving. Cultic focus on wealth, thus, elaborated traditional concern with the political management of economic production and exchange. And, because people believe that ancestral powers ensure the fertility of people, gardens, and pigs, it made sense to turn to ancestors also to acquire money or shotguns or tinned peaches. Cargo cult rituals were similar to traditional ceremonies that ensure ancestral benevolence.
Islanders also continue to believe that ancestors speak to them in dreams, providing important knowledge, hints of the future, and instruction for proper living. Ancestral messages about the arrival of cargo ships and planes were similar to other sorts of spiritual communication. Furthermore, Lawrence (1964) and others have suggested that Melanesian structures of time and social transformation are “episodic” rather than developmental. People presume that sudden transformations are normal; that one cosmic order at any moment may replace another. Prophecies of cargo’s arrival, the return of the dead, and the emergence of a new world are more compelling where people do not believe that the future must develop incrementally over time from the present. Finally, cultic organization<M>a society of believers who follow cult prophets and leaders<M>resembled ordinary social organization in much of Melanesia where big-men attract followers by managing the exchange of goods and information. Cargo prophets, along these lines, were just another sort of traditional island leader.
If cargo cults are a Pacific version of millenarian movements that erupt everywhere in times of uncertainty and change, then these aspects of Melanesian culture help explain the particular organizational form of cults and the details of cargo belief. More than this, some have suggested that cargo culting is an indigenous Melanesian form of politicking that predates colonial interference in the region. If this is the case, cargo cults may not quiet down and ultimately disappear as the era of colonialism passes into that of postcolonialism.
@H1 Cargo Cult Futures
Cargo cults may continue to erupt, or they may prove to have been a twentieth-century reaction to colonial inequalities and the disruptions of world war. The most successful movements, however, will certainly survive into the twenty-first century, now institutionalized as political parties and churches in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. Beginning in the 1980s, fundamentalist Christian missions based in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States strengthened their presence in the Pacific. Influenced by this Christian millenarianism, many islanders have become involved in Holy Spirit movements. In these, cargo expectations are muted. Instead, people seek to be possessed by the Holy Spirit to bring about the transformation of self, society, and world. Typically, these movements also undertake campaigns against sorcery, cleansing villages of hidden sorcery paraphernalia believed to be causing illness, death, and disorder. Holy Spirit prophets predict the Last Day<M>the return not so much of cargo but of Christ<M>and the impending establishment of a new cosmos.
Whatever happens to cargo cults themselves in the Pacific, the label “cargo cult” is now widely applied<M>and not just in Melanesia. Any fervid desire today for wealth or goods that people pursue with apparently irrational means can be condemned as cargo cultic. As people everywhere are absorbed into a global, capitalist order where economic inequalities persist, and even deepen, it may be that cargo culting will indeed spread beyond Melanesia. As we learn to desire goods that are impossible to obtain, we may turn in despair to our gods and prophets. Insofar as that global order limits our freedom and dignity, we may join with others in organized protest. We, too, may be searching the skies for our cargo.
See also John Frum Movement
@H1 Further Reading
Burridge, K. (1960). Mambu: A study of Melanesian cargo movements and their social and ideological background. London: Methuen.
Burridge, K. (1960). New heaven, new earth: A study of Millenarian activities. New York: Schocken Books.
Cochrane, G. (1970). Big men and cargo cults. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Guiart, J. (1951). Forerunners of Melanesian nationalism. Oceania, 22, 81<N>90.
Lattas, A. (1998). Cultures of secrecy: Reinventing race in Bush Kaliai cargo cults. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Lawrence, P. (1964). Road belong cargo: A study of the cargo movement in the southern Madang District, New Guinea. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
Lindstrom, L. (1993). Cargo cult: Strange stories of desire from Melanesia and beyond. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Lindstrom, L. (1996). Cargo inventories, shopping lists, and desire. In W. Haviland & R. Gordon (Eds.), Talking about people: Readings in contemporary cultural anthropology (2nd ed., pp. 25<N>39). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
Maher, R. (1961). New men of Papua: A study of culture change. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
McDowell, N. (1988). A note on cargo cults and cultural constructions of change. Pacific Studies, 11, 121<N>134.
Mead, M. (1966). New lives for old: Cultural transformation<M>Manus, 1928<N>1953. New York: Morrow.
Rimoldi, M. (1992). Hahalis and the labour of love: A social movement on Buka Island. Oxford, U.K.: Berg.
Steinbauer, F. (1979). Melanesian cargo cults: New salvation movements in the South Pacific. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press.
Trompf, G. W. (1990). Cargo cults and millenarian movements: Transoceanic comparisons of new religious movements. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Whitehouse, Harvey. (1995). Inside the Cult: Religious Innovation and Transmission in Papua New Guinea. New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, F. E. (1923). The Vailala madness and the destruction of native ceremonies in the Gulf Division. (Anthropology Report no. 4). Port Moresby, Territory of Papua.
Worsley, P. (1957). The trumpet shall sound: A study of “cargo” cults in Melanesia. London: Macgibbon & Kee.